My dad is a perpetual motion machine. At 77 years old, he walks six miles a day and loves to “putter” around the house. If he’s on the phone, he’s pacing. Unless he’s watching a baseball game, it’s rare to catch him sitting down for more than five minutes — and even then, he shifts in his seat and jiggles his legs. And he’s fit as a fiddle.
Spontaneous physical activity (SPA) is the energy we burn for everything we do apart from sleeping, eating or structured exercise. In a recent blog post, I discussed intermittent activity — but SPA is something entirely different. SPA includes things like fidgeting, housework, yard work, shopping — even typing, knitting, and walking a fussy baby around the house.
It’s easy to think that only structured exercise — like brisk walking or running — counts when it comes to burning calories. But any movement, big or small, expends energy — and SPA burns a surprisingly large amount of calories when performed throughout the day.
In fact, calories burned via SPA can vary among individuals by up to 2000 calories a day— and that difference can determine whether someone maintains a healthy weight or packs on the pounds. One study found obese subjects spent 2.5 hours more sitting vs. sedentary but lean subjects — and suggested that simply moving from a pattern of sitting to a pattern of standing and moving could burn an additional 350 calories a day. And that’s without structured exercise, mind you.
I wouldn’t tell anyone to forgo their workout routine to simply stand up more. But for best results, I encourage my clients to do both — regular exercise plus standing or moving as much as possible when they’re not exercising.
Studies suggest that SPA has a genetic component — some people are more prone to keep moving than others — but the biggest variation in SPA between individuals is due to occupation. It makes sense —forest rangers, for example, are bound to move more during the work day compared to accountants.
But you don’t have to be born with the right genes or change careers to get a big boost in energy expenditure from SPA. It takes conscious effort, but with practice, you can make SPA a normal part of everyday living — and become a moving target, just like my dad.
Try these tips for boosting your daily SPA:
- Plant and tend a garden.
- Pace while talking, texting, or waiting at the bus stop.
- Play with your kids in the backyard or at the park.
- Take the stairs.
- Do some active volunteering in your community.
- Try a walking meeting for your next 1:1.
- Tap your feet and rotate your ankles and shoulders when seated.
- During long seated periods, get up and stretch at least once per hour.
- Waiting in line? Rock back and forth on the heels and balls of your feet.
- Use the drinking fountain or bathroom on the next floor.
Beth Shepard, MS, ACSM-RCEP, ACE-PT, has a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Arizona. Beth is an expert in fitness and health promotion and a certified wellness coach, helping people thrive by adopting sustainable lifestyle changes. She and her family love to hike, bicycle, and try new sports.
- Levine JA, Nonexercise activity thermogenesis–liberating the life-force.J Intern Med. 2007 Sep;262(3):273-87. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17697152
- Kravitz L, A NEAT New Strategy for Weight Control, IDEA Fitness Journal, 2006
- Expand+Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biologyatvb.ahajournals.orgArteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. 2006; 26: 729-736 Published online before print January 26, 2006, doi: 10.1161/01.ATV.0000205848.83210.73
- James A. Levine, Mark W. Vander Weg, James O. Hill, Robert C. Klesges, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis: The Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon of Societal Weight Gain, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2006; 26: 729-736.Published online before print January 26, 2006, doi: 10.1161/01.ATV.0000205848.83210.73